Relationship Institute Australasia

Counselling and
Professional Training

2 January 2017

Categories: Relationship Help


This is a question that is frequently asked of therapists by media.  It turns out that couples are mostly fighting about “absolutely nothing”, according to Dr John Gottman.  In his research with over 3,000 couples Dr Gottman observed thousands of hours of couples fighting and what he came to see was that couples think they are fighting about wet towels on the floor, or messy kitchens, or a million other day to day things; but what they are actually fighting about is the way they think they are being treated!

We get fooled into thinking that our partner will understand that we feel disrespected when the wet towel is left on the floor if we use logic to convince them not to do it.  For example, consider this conversation:

Jim:  “Honey you left your wet towel on the floor again”  (This is a reasonably good soft start up)

Jane:  “So what, it’s just a towel, it is easy to wash it” (This is a little defensive but there is logic in the statement)

Jim:  “Well that’s not the point, it’s messy and it could lead to mould developing.” (This is all true and logical too)

Jane:  “Come on that’s a bit of an overstatement the towel never stays on the floor for that long.”

Jim:  “That’s because I’m the one who always picks it up.”

Jane:  “Well, right, what’s your problem then?”

We can all imagine where this conversation is going.  Now let’s consider the following conversation:

Wendy:  “Honey you left your wet towel on the floor again”  (This is a reasonably good soft start up)

Bill:  “You’re right, I did.  I have never understood why this is so important to you though” (Jim takes some responsibility for his behavior and communicates interest in Jane’s point of view)

Wendy:  “Well, I guess I grew up in a house that was always a mess and there were never any dry or clean towels anywhere.  I always felt embarrassed and stressed about having friends over and it was just generally a really grotty way to live.  I could never really feel comfortable or relaxed with all that mess around.  I guess I have always wanted to live in a really clean and tidy house that I could feel totally comfortable and at ease in.”

Bill:  “Hmm, well I guess I did grow up in a clean and tidy house, but mum just made it that way, so I guess I never really had to pay too much attention to it.”

Wendy:  “Well do you think you could help me out with it a bit more?”

Bill:  “Sure honey, I will do my best, but I will probably still forget sometimes, but I’m happy for you to remind me, because it just doesn’t come naturally to me.”

In every relationship, approximately 69% of what we fight about are what Gottman calls Perpetual Problems.  These are simply differences between people.  Things like:

 

  • Differences in neatness and organization. One person is neat and organized, and the other is sloppy and disorganized.
  • Differences in wanting time together versus time apart and alone. One person wants more time alone than the other, who wants more time together.
  • Differences in optimal sexual frequency. One person wants more sex than the other.
  • Differences in preferred lovemaking style. There are differences in what each person wants from lovemaking. For example, one sees intimacy as a precondition to making love, while the other sees lovemaking as a path to intimacy.
  • Differences in handling finances. One person is much more financially conservative and perhaps a worrier, while the other wants to spend money more freely and has a philosophy of living more for the moment.
  • Differences in how to approach household chores. For example, one person wants equal division of labor, while the other does not.
  • Differences in how to raise and discipline children. One person is more involved with the children than the other; or, One person is stricter with the children than another; or, One person wants more gentleness and understanding with the children than the other.
  • Differences in punctuality. One person is habitually late, and to the other it is important to be on time.
  • Differences in preferred activity level. One person prefers active physical recreation, while the other is more passive and sedentary.
  • Differences in being people-oriented. One person is more extroverted and gregarious
  • than the other.
  • Differences in preferred influence. One person prefers to be more dominant in decisionmaking than the other.
  • Differences in ambition and the importance of work. One person is far more ambitious and oriented to work and success than the other.
  • Differences with respect to religion. One person values religious values more than the other.
  • Differences with respect to drugs and alcohol. One person is far more tolerant of drugs and alcohol than the other.
  • Differences in independence. One person feels a greater need to be independent than the other.
  • Differences in excitement. One person feels a greater need to have life be exciting or adventurous than the other.
  • Differences in values. There are major differences in what we value in life.
  • Differences in relationship fidelity. There are major differences in what it means to be sexually loyal to one another.

The important thing about these differences is to learn to accept each other’s differences and rather than fight about them, or try to convert each other to your own way of thinking, learn to understand them, learn to accept influence from your partner about their differences and learn to compromise on these as each situation demands.

During the Art and Science of Love Couples workshop, couples learn how to better manage these differences, how to dialogue about them so that they bring you closer together rather than pushing you further apart.

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